The war in Vietnam was a traumatic experience in Hollywood, an ordeal now bearing fruit in a series of extremely bad movies about the war. During the conflict, movie makers noticed that war is brutual, sordid and psychologically unsettling. This was a great advance: previously war had been a glorious game, a la "The Guns of Navarone," packaged to titillate an audience of children. Hollywood characteristically celebrated its new insight by producing silly sterotypes of soldiers, and by selling and understanding of the war so simple as to make Aesop seem complex.
Hollywood divides between the Baez view, that soldiers are innocent and witless dupes of the Pentagon, and the SDS view, that they are ruthless killers. (Considerable inconsistency is involved: I have trouble imagining an innocent, witless, ruthless killer.) Having survived the war, the veteran is now believed to be a shattered creature, deranged and twitching, quite likely to take a shotgun to his family in a moment of awful remembrance. Alternatively, he is a guilt-ridden wreck.
Generally he is neither. Hollywood believes he is because it has chosen to see the Vietnam War, as distinct from all other wars, as a moral drama. One notes that movie morality is selective. Movies about World War II are not concerned about moral questions. Their soldiers are heroes, their war as simple-mindedly good as Vietnam's was bad. Only Vietnam produces cinematic homilies. Only Vietnam veterans are painted as outcasts with broken minds. It is a little tiresome.
Hollywood's moral concern is otherwise negligible. Its usual films dwell contendedly on war, sadism, grotesque violence. Many pictures consist of 20 close-ups of people being shot in the forehead, connected by a pornographer's idea of a plot. Many films actually glorify savagery. The endless parade of bloody cop-operas -- "Magnum Force" and its kin -- unsubtly suggest that unrestrained violence is the cure for social problems.
I sometimes wonder where to find the emotionally crippled veterans in the movies. I spent a year in Bethesda Naval Hospital on a ward full of wounded Marines. Many had seen ferocious fighting. Many were badly hurt. They didn't twitch. None was subject to wild irrational rages. They weren't bitter. None had "flashbacks." My memories are largely of boredom on the ward, drinking in Georgetown when we were well enough and chasing girls wherever we could find them.
As a reporter covering the military, I talked with countless veterans, both in and out of the service. Many were draftees. I have met only two who qualified as unhinged. Both were former deep-jungle commandos, stalked in their nightmares by files of corpses. The rest were ordinary people.
To see veterans as either dupes or gleeful killers is to demean them and to oversimplify human behavior. The men I knew best, the Marines, were volunteers. They enlisted for many reasons. Some joined for adventure; if they were dupes, so were Columbus and Alan Shepard. Some went simply to see the war; if they were deluded, so were the correspondents (often they became the correspondents). Some went to fight communism, which they understood with different degrees of sophistication. Watching the "boat people," they have their own ideas about the identity of the dupes. Some, the ones who would volunteer to be door gunners, went to prove themselves, and some were the born samurai who joined the elite outfits. These latter were complex men, but nobody's fools. A motive Hollywood doesn't share is not necessarily a contemptible motive.
Were the veterans ruthless killers? Killing, alas, is not so repugnant as we would like it to be. The awful truth is that soldiers -- anybody's soldiers -- quickly get used to it. Military training doesn't make men into killers. It just shows them how.
I have met only one veteran who felt guilty about the war. Many think it was a mistake (nor a moral error) either because we couldn't have won it, or because we didn't win it. The phrase "immoral war" has little meaning in a rice paddy. For a surprising number, it was just the war: not everyone analyzes. Some saw international politics as a struggle against Soviet imperialism, in which Vietnam was a lost battle in a good cause.
Anyone is free to think that veterans should feel guilty; the truth, I believe, is that they do not.
Hollywood's people, their capacity for insight perhaps exhausted by "Mork and Mindy," have managed to miss the dramatic potential of Vietnam. To portray a soldier as a lurching psychotic is neither accurate nor particularly interesting: no one is surprised that a psychotic should kill. The intriguing thing is that soldiers, who are no more killers than the rest of us, should nonetheless kill; or that a commando, having spent years in a murderous trade, often remains a decent man. The intriguing thing is that a race that professes to loathe war should be so fascinated by it.
A first-rate playwright might do marvelous things with such material. Hollywood can't. Maybe people who make situation comedies finally come to think like people in situation comedies. I suppose we will forever see the Vietnam veterans, and no others, as they never were -- lunatics, fools, metaphors for whatever curious processes occur in a director's mind.